Martyrdom -- Sightings

How often do we, here in the West, think of ourselves as being persecuted for our faith?  Whether it's being disinvited from the National Day of Prayer or an absence from the Supreme Court, there is a sense of being put upon.  But are we really?  Martin Marty, in reflection upon the text from John 15, reminds us of those who truly do face persecution. 


Sightings 5/17/10

-- Martin E. Marty

Almost always Sightings takes off from a current text or image lifted from news and opinion sources. This week our “current” text is 1900 years old. It happened that Sunday I was to engage in a moonlighting vocation, namely preaching a sermon, something I’ve enjoyed doing for sixty-two years. To some, this activity in a sanctuary may seem to occur in a polar-opposite locale from the “Public Religion” sites that we ordinarily visit. However, sanctuary acts are to relate to the public, and public acts have or can have anchors in community and personal life. Those of us who are called to preach on Lectionary – ecumenically-chosen biblical – texts often have to take their chances. This week the seasonal text was from John 15:20-27, read as farewell words of Jesus to disciples. Preachers everywhere are in trouble almost right off. Jesus: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” While I have preached among the poor and suffering, few were persecuted. More often the words fall on the ears of comfortable, middle-class persons, or in the academies, people with pensions, good names, often tenure, honorary degrees, “Good Citizen” awards. Now what? “They” did persecute Jesus back then, and he promised like treatment for his followers. Here the contortions begin.

Contemporaries in comfortable worlds go hunting for persecutees, and often even place themselves in the mirrors, as being the hunted. These days the whole concept of being persecuted gets trivialized. Forbid “National Day of Prayer” people from receiving demanded public space and time, and you will hear moans and whines: “They are persecuting us!” Tell that to the people who are tortured and condemned for their religious, in this case Christian, commitments and witness. Maybe some who cry “Persecution!” do so not for political reasons, as they seek to be empowered in their weakness and humility. Better to punt and scoot past the verse I quoted to other really rich and promising words in the “Farewell Discourse.” But, then, is there something to the point for moderns as they hear these words from a gospel?

Here is where contemporary relevance does come in. Monitoring newspapers, newsletters, magazines, print-outs, and media stories and images, as we are called to do, has us finding horror stories each week from around the world. How many? It is hard to know, given the dispersal of two billion Christians in two hundred lands, many of them suffering in silence, unnoticed, as embarrassments to their enemies, or too insignificant to be counted up. Yet we get clues, however they are gained and however widely they vary. My favorite guess, or reckoning, appears in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Volume 34, No. 1 of which appeared in January.

The count? “Average Christian Martyrs Per Year,” 178,000 right now, 210,000 projected for 2025. Of course, as I read such figures annually and occasionally ponder explanations about how computers help bring up such figures – how can anyone know? – I indulge in the hermeneutics of suspicion. What are the motives of the calculators, friends of martyrs, and statisticians? Just as quickly as such questions come to mind, one does well to postpone dealing with them and instead to think about what even one such death means, what one harassed and stalked community suffers, what motivation it should develop for people of good will in statecraft, non-governmental organizations, and religious communities of all sorts, to change circumstances, to bring the number down. 210,000 in 2025? That text from John 17 still haunts.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


On April 6, 2010 Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke at the University of Chicago Divinity School in an event sponsored by the university’s Theology Workshop. This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum brings audio from Land’s discussion, titled “Christians, Public Policy, and Church and State Separation,” and offers reflections on the event in an introduction by David Newheiser, Ph.D. student and coordinator of the Theology Workshop at the University of Chicago.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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